We have chronicled many harness manufacturers on these pages, but none with roots as far back as 1938. But such is the case with Stark Electronics/Absolute Quality Manufacturing, and I recently had the pleasure of a conversation with the entire management team, Jason Zoubek, President, Jeff Zoubek, Vice President, Jason Everson, Vice President, Reed Rolfhus, General Manager, Greg Wolff, Sales Manager, and Yongyee Vang, Engineering Manager.
Stark Electronics was started by Harry Stark in 1938 in downtown Minneapolis. They were a distributor of electronic parts and equipment such as capacitors, resistors, vacuum tubes and other radio components. They have always had a strong presence in the upper Midwest. Greg Wolff mentioned that his father saved up all summer to purchase a crystal radio kit in 1952 from Stark Electronics Supply.
In 1970, at the request of many of their customers, Stark began doing value-add, building simple cable assemblies and other components. As sales grew, and build complexities increased, they decided the business needed its own identity. “In 1999, as more customers were asking us to do more value-add work, we found that we couldn’t lease tooling as a distributor. So, we created a separate company called Absolute Quality Manufacturing,” Jason E. explained. “We had been doing the value-add manufacturing since the 70s, and kitting well before that. For our customers, that’s always been part of our DNA.”
Since that time, the value-add side has grown with AQM building more complex wire harnesses, and control panels for renewable energy, gas & oil, semiconductor, agriculture, specialty automotive and construction equipment industries. “We have a really good balance of high and low-volume business. We have assemblies at 100,000 units or more per year and we also have customers with 500 SKUs,” Jason E. explained. Most of the manufacturing is done in Minnesota with some assemblies manufactured in Mexico.
Although the components and technology have changed dramatically through the years, the distribution side of the business continues to be robust, with a reach well beyond the Midwest. “Today we have about 75 franchised lines and we are going to be finalizing a new contract for a terminal block line later today,” Jason Z. reported. The terminal block line signed was Weidmueller and is available now. And that distributor arm gives them a definite advantage on the value-add side. “We’re getting a sense of what’s happening in the factories in China and elsewhere before the word gets out, and that’s allowed us to position ourselves with the right inventory in order to support our customers,” he explained.
Because of their ISO 9001 certification, they take exception to design. However, Yongyee is able to make component design suggestions based on information they receive from their various distribution principles. “And there’s a definite price advantage,” Jason Z. explained. “Most contract manufacturers have to go through a distributor to buy components, and there’s a markup there. Ultimately, we are focused on the end customer, whether it’s our customer or theirs, we are focused on getting end customers the components and assemblies they need,” Jason E. emphasized.
As far as their geographic reach, that has changed a lot over the years, especially since the management team purchased the company in 2016 following the unexpected passing of their former President and CEO, Duane Petersen. They have customers from coast-to-coast, down to Florida and throughout Canada, as well as around the world.
We talked about marketing for the value-add part of the business. It should be no surprise that with such an impressive history, a great deal is through word-of-mouth. “Probably most of it is through established relationships both with distribution and value-add customers,” Jason Z. detailed. He made a special point to mention the outstanding sales relationships Greg Wolff has cultivated. “One account he started with many years ago has turned into seven accounts by people going to work for other companies. They liked working with Greg so that one relationship has turned into seven accounts for our company.”
AQM is also seeing results from an increased concentration on digital marketing, including a lot of help from Thomas.net. The former ownership team was not in favor of trade shows, but recently they have had a great deal of success with the Design-2-Part shows. They also have direct field salespeople in Michigan along with representatives prospecting for business in other areas.
As mentioned, AQM’s Quality Management System is certified to ISO 9001:2015. They added UL 508A, the work standard certification for panel builds, in 2015 to their already existing UL certifications. They currently build to WHMA/IPC A-620 and have three certified CIT trainers conducting classes to bring the entire production team up to speed. There are also two J Standard certified individuals on staff.
The company operates out of a 39,000 square-foot facility with about 55 employees in downtown Minneapolis. That’s all about to change, however. “We would love to talk about the fact that we are relocating,” Jason Z. was thrilled to announce. “We are leaving Minneapolis for suburbia, New Brighton to be exact, and that’s coming in the next few months. We are doing the buildout now for what will be a state-of-the-art facility that better suits our future needs.” They engaged the services of a consultant to determine the best location based on employee residence. “We are moving closer to our staff and there are only two people who will be impacted by an increased commute, and they’re both in this room.”
Jason Z. described how the ownership team stepped back and let the entire team put together the plan for the new facility. “Yongyee has been instrumental in laying everything out. The modular format he created allows us to easily move things to scale. We are starting with a blank canvas that fits our trajectory as a company, and everybody has been involved in that.”
There is a detailed plan for the transition, likely in April, that will not interrupt production or hamper customer needs. “One of the essential things is we have tools we have used through the years but are not actively using. Those will not be coming with us,” Jason E. emphasized “We have equipment we purchased from TWA, and when is the last time you heard that name? But that equipment supports our customers. We also have one of the last ribbon cable machines. It’s a dinosaur but it’s fully automated and we still have customers buying ribbon cable.”
As we discussed equipment, Jason Z. made a point of discussing the impact of one vendor in particular. “We’ve got some good people at Komax who have really helped us along the way by analyzing the cables that we produce to specify the right equipment. We had two very large OEMs come to our facility last year. They have been going around the U.S. auditing suppliers and said that our plant was by far the best equipped of any they previewed. I feel that’s a feather in our cap and a big part of it is because of our partnership with Komax.”
Above all, Stark, Electronics/Absolute Quality Manufacturing places honesty and integrity at the core of everything they do, and it’s been that way since the very beginning. “Our former President, Duane Petersen always pushed to make sure we were in good standing with our customers, principles, and suppliers, and that everybody who worked here did a great job. It was his wish that we purchased the company, and you know, when we did it, we were scared to death. But in hindsight, it’s been an opportunity few have been given.”
Many thanks to the team for taking the time to explain what makes Stark, Electronics/Absolute Quality Manufacturing unique. I came away feeling there was a refreshing amount of mutual respect in the room. We wish them the best of luck in their upcoming move and in future endeavors. If you’d like, more information on the company, please visit www.absoluteq.com.